Remembering the March on Washington, 50 years ago today
Singing the stanza “We are not afraid” of the classic song of the civil rights era, “We Shall Overcome,” together with that enormous crowd of humanity, afterward estimated to be about 300,000, was highly ironic for me. I was fearful, and I had been from the very beginning of that morning on Aug. 28, 1963, as I walked toward the Lincoln Memorial with several fellow clergy with whom I had shared sleeping space on the floor of a Georgetown church the night before. It was eerily quiet. No one talked as we walked. All I could hear was the drone of buses, lots of buses, bringing people from all over America. It just seemed so quiet! I have wondered since that day whether it really was quiet or was it a stillness, a momentous stillness which left me quietly alone with my thoughts. I kept thinking that this was just the place and time for a bomb to explode. After all, there had been violence, a lot of violence … even in Albany, my hometown at the time.
Fortunately, there was no violence that day, only great music, great words and Dr. King’s inspiring dream.
On the way home but just outside Washington, my priest friend and I stopped at a roadside combination restaurant-gift-gas station which was teeming with people. The parking lot was full of buses. We were intending to buy souvenirs of Washington for our kids. “How ironic was that?” I now think. But as we entered that store, it was literally wall-to-wall people, jammed into a narrow entry at the center of which was a black man stooping to clean up some spillage with mop and pail. He was wearing a white, starched cotton short jacket, the then-universal uniform of the black porter, and he looked up at me as I passed, and he spoke to me. I thought at that moment that his skin was ebony against the whiteness of his jacket. I could not hear his words for the din in there, but I read his lips, easily. I was still wearing my white “March on Washington for Freedom and Jobs” button, which I am sure stood out against my black clergy shirt. He asked me, “Were you there?” I answered, “Yes.” And he smiled. And so did I.
That moment and that smile was the best of all souvenirs to bring home. The next morning at my church, I encountered church wardens who were furious with me for having gone to Washington. And many of my people were stonily silent. Their message to me became clear: My place was in the pulpit – not in the “streets!” And soon after, I got a note from my bishop who scolded me, saying, “We don’t do things like that!” And I was angry with them in return. How I wish now that, as a pastor, I had registered disappointment with them instead of anger. But that’s the way it was back then.
Things are better now, but there is still much to overcome … and much of Dr. King’s dream to carry on.
The Rev. Canon William D. Small lives in Paul Smiths. This account originally appeared in the Enterprise in January as a letter to the editor, submitted in recognition of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. It’s reprinted today to recognize the March on Washington’s 50th anniversary.